How We Went Post-Carbon

One of our major goals is to prototype a post-carbon lifestyle to demonstrate that it is not only viable and within reach but also comfortable, easy and desirable. When we purchased the house, it had a gas furnace, hot water tank and cook top and we drove an internal combustion engine car. Going post carbon effectively means eliminating fossil fuels in all aspects of life, so switching everything over to electric is the crucial task. This is made considerably easier in BC where almost all the grid power comes from hydro energy, which is both (nearly) GHG free and (relatively) inexpensive.

Heating and Hot Water

The first order of business was to remove the gas furnace, hot water tank and cook top, which all needed replacing in any case. Our first choice replacement was a radiant floor system powered by an air-to-water heat pump — it would have been highly efficient and unrivalled for comfort.  Alas, it was cost-prohibitive, so we opted to keep and re-use the existing ducting and install an air-to-air heat pump instead. This saved on the demolition and prevented waste from going to the land fill. The heat pump operates very efficiently between about zero and twenty-five degrees Celsius, which is about 95% of the time in North Vancouver, and also provides the added benefit of cooling in the summer.

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We lessened the load on the heat pump by insulating the walls and roof and installing double-glazed windows and good doors. The most economical hot water option at the time was a conventional electric hot water tank combined with a passive heat exchanger called a ‘power pipe’. The power pipe captures heat from the drainage water to preheat the water in the hot water tank. Four years later and there are now cost competitive heat pump systems on the market which are probably a better option rolling forward.

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Cooking & Entertaining

We replaced the gas cook top with an induction cook top. We were a little leery at first as we were under the misconception that we had to replace all of our pots and pans (in the end there was only one that didn’t work). We were also pleasantly surprised with how powerful, precise and responsive it is — virtually equivalent in performance to gas, without the emissions. 

Replacing the gas barbecue was more of a challenge, both because we enjoy grilling and because the alternatives are not quite ready for primetime. We ultimately decided to make our own “induction bbq” with an induction cooktop, a grill and a portable kitchen island.  While this is not completely satisfactory, it does work and will tide us over until real induction bbq’s are available and cost competitive.

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We agonized over the wood-burning fireplace quite a bit. There was certainly no question of converting it to a gas fireplace, not only because of the fossil fuels but also because the experience of a gas fire is a very poor facsimile of a real wood fire. But the key question is “can a wood fire be post carbon?”, or in other words “is it necessary to eliminate non-fossil fuels as well to address climate change?” Ultimately we decided it is not for one main reason: burning wood releases carbon dioxide, but decomposing wood releases both carbon dioxide and methane, which is 20 times more virulent as a green house gas. Viewed through this lens, not only is it OK to burn wood, but in fact all waste wood should be burned, not dumped. The main downside of burning wood is incomplete combustion, which gives rise to a host of pollutants, especially soot particles. We looked at fire place inserts, but these were pricey and did not really address the pollution issue. We looked at chimney filters that remove particulates, but these were all made in Europe and require 240V power at the top of your chimney (strangely, we have no receptacle there…) So we decided to address the problem at the source and got a BioLite smoke-free fire pit. This uses precise airflow to create complete combustion, burning up not only the wood, but all the particulates as well.

Transportation

With the house on a post-carbon footing, the next step was to address to the carbon emissions from our transportation. As a family of four, we would struggle to live completely without a car given all the running around we have to do. So we opted to buy a fully electric car with a long-range battery. We were ready to sacrifice performance in the name of eliminating GHGs, but much like with the induction cooktop, we were pleasantly surprised with how performant it is compared to an internal combustion engine car. In addition to eliminating GHGs, so far we are on track to save around $3000 on fuel this year.

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We installed 30A charger in our garage, to allow complete recharge overnight. We are not opposed to charging elsewhere, but it is just so convenient get home and plug in.

Energy Production

While the grid power in BC is low GHG hydro energy, we wanted to understand how people anywhere with high GHG grid power can go post-carbon as well. So we installed 5.77KW photovoltaic system on roof. This was not a “necessity” but as designers we wanted to explore the range of options that PVs offer and develop our own data set using them. If mass electrification is the solution to eliminating fossil fuels from the economy, then installing new clean sources of electricity is of paramount importance. We calculated the payback period at today’s prices to be around 20 years, which is about how long we expect to live in this house. In practice it will be shorter because of energy cost inflation, which did not factor into the calculation. It sure feels good to be an energy producer!

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In conclusion, going post-carbon is not really that difficult and does not involve curtailing enjoyable aspects of our lives. There are some up-front costs, but these are typically offset by energy savings down the road. Going post-carbon is a journey, not a final destination; we are still trying to understand, for instance, the carbon emissions latent in our food and consumer product choices. But addressing the GHG emissions from our home and car is a solid first step that we hope many other people could take without too much difficulty.